Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish created a poetry of martyrdom for his people—and a political coup for the idea of the nakba
To read this poetry truly, one would’ve had to have written it—to have been born, as Pagis was, in Bukovina in 1930 (Bukovina was also the birthplace of Paul Celan); to have spent an early adolescence in forced-labor camps in Transnistria; to have emigrated to Israel in 1946, speaking nothing but crusts of Yiddish, Romanian, Russian, and a German poisoned by Nazism, and yet, within two decades, to have become one of the great scholars of medieval and Renaissance Hebrew. This biographical recitation won’t end with death, however (which came for Pagis in 1986), but with the reminder that nothing that’s been recounted has altered even a single word of the poem that precedes—Pagis, like Darwish, remains “uncivilized.”
The more we’re aware of martyred authorship the more our readings tend to fall into that “jungle” between the “mountains”—halfway between appreciating the art and being awed by the witness. Certainly the process of separating the aesthetic from the evidentiary cannot be as primitive as, say, determining citizenship—art cannot be fixed in time like the 1940s, nor fixed in space like Gaza, or like an Auschwitz-Birkenau Appelplatz. Studying a martyr’s poetry is the secular equivalent of studying the Bible: Some come for the truth and stay for the beauty; others come for the beauty and stay for the truth.
One wool sweater alone is not enough to befriend the winter. You will look for warmth in your books, escaping the mire into an imagined world, ink on paper. And songs you could only hear from the neighbors’ radio. Dreams would not find room in a mud house, hastily built like a chicken coop with seven dreamers crowded inside—none of whom would call the others by name since names had become numbers. Speech, dry gestures to be exchanged only when absolutely necessary, such as when you lose consciousness from malnutrition and are treated with fish oil, the civilized world’s gift to those driven out of their homes. You are forced to drink it, just as you force pain to swallow its voice by feigning contentment.
This pan-Semitic poetics I’m attempting to describe is synoptic, and territorially insatiable, annexing both the authority and the authorial liberties of scripture and commentary. It was Darwish’s brilliant conceit to create a late poetry of martyrdom that reads as an addendum to, and gloss on, all the martyrologies that came before it. It’s not that the surfeit of suffering to be found in the literature of 20th-century Jewry was Darwish’s subject, rather that that literature became, by a conversion that was as much a usurpation, his primary text—the gray ur-poetry to be appropriated, and revised, by the Palestinians’ more immediate trauma. (In the process, imagery remained intact: trees, stones, blood; only proper nouns and landscapes differed: Darwish gave us deserts, prisons, forts by seas, Jericho.)
Of course, the poets of the Holocaust themselves sourced from earlier poetries of affliction: Yiddish poets in particular rendered the archaic laments of Hebrew and Aramaic into a living European idiom. Kalonymus ben Judah’s “Oh that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears,” written in the Rhineland following the slaughter of the First Crusade, was an adaptation of a stanza from the Book of Jeremiah. Psalm 137’s “waters of Babylon” have been fluenced, by obvious metaphor, into every age’s Rhine, and Vistula—and Jordan.
(Dahlia Ravikovitch, a native Israeli of Darwish’s generation, ruthlessly evoked this Psalm in her 1986 poem, You Can’t Kill A Baby Twice:
By the sewage puddles of Sabra and Shatila,
there you transported human beings
in impressive quantity
from the world of the living to the world
of everlasting light.)
To absorb this tradition, Darwish had to deny its parochialism: He accused his oppressors by recalling their oppressors, the enemies of his enemy who were never his “friends.” After having assimilated the Russians and Surrealists, Apollinaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Avicenna, and the classical Arabic court poets—not to neglect Muhammad, who received the Quran from the Angel Gabriel, who himself was but the amanuensis of Allah—would it be so strange for Darwish, long in a short life, to have found his best models here, among the Jewish poets—their corpora of corpses? His words raised the words of the dead at Metz, Speyer, Worms, Mainz, Cologne, at Belzec and Treblinka, into warnings to their modern descendants; he rewrote the Deuteronomic injunction, “remember,” to refer to the present: Look, See, Hear, Listen.
It’s only now, with Jewish literature cleaving to either American pieties or Israeli anomie, that Darwish’s stunning poetics can be revealed—through the sheer egality of its referents—as a political coup: Because of his poetry, the Holocaust and al-nakba, the destruction—as the Palestinians call the founding of Israel—can now be compared. Not in the numbers of the victims, neither in the intentions of the victimizers—rather in how the individual human howl is, and will be, worded.
And so much blood flowed that tracking blood, our blood, became the enemy’s reassuring guide, afraid of what he had done to us, not of what we might do to him. We, who have no existence in “the Promised Land,” became the ghost of the murdered who haunted the killer in both wakefulness and sleep, and the realm in-between, leaving him troubled and despondent. The insomniac screams: Have they not died yet? No, because the ghost reaches the age of being weaned, then comes adulthood, resistance, and return. Airplanes pursue the ghost in the air. Tanks pursue the ghost on land. Submarines pursue the ghost in the sea. The ghost grows up and occupies the killer’s consciousness until it drives him insane.
The Metropolitan Opera’s new Siegfried, part of its ambitious Ring cycle, exposes the greatness—and the limitations—of Wagner and his admirers